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InfoQ Homepage Articles Moving into "Modern Test Leadership"

Moving into "Modern Test Leadership"

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Key Takeaways

  • From the moment you take a step into leadership and your role includes responsibility for other humans, you will find that the time spent actively doing hands-on testing will reduce, and your testing time will be focused on motivating the team to test effectively.
  • A good test leader cannot and should not know every intricate detail of how to test everything, but should be able to lean on a very well-trusted team to help ensure the detail is available to those who need it.
  • As a test leader, you need to learn to adapt to remain relevant.This can be achieved by constantly being open to learning the new industry trends while also completing self-retrospectives and identifying your personal values.
  • Take time to self-reflect on what is important to you, building personal leadership values. Mine include "Protect, Empower, Nurture and Evangelise" where I show how implementing these can help push the team forward.
  • Taking that step into Test Leadership means focusing more on raising the awareness of testing across an organisation, and coaching/mentoring your team to be passionate advocates for quality.

The tech industry is evolving faster than anyone is prepared for and with that, roles within the software world are in desperate need of change too, no more so than in the testing world with the industry focus on "automating everything" and the apparent less need for manual testing. With the demand for faster delivery, more complex tech stacks and more fluid ways of working, testing roles and activities need to move too. One role in particular is that of the "test manager".

"Test management is dead" is a common phrase, especially in an agile world. But it's not dead; it just really needs to evolve. In this article, I will talk through the changes I have noticed and also proactively made to ensure I stayed relevant in a test leadership role.

From being a QA lead to becoming a QA manager

It was almost an overnight change from being hands-on with the testing and owning the testing efforts for certain features, to having to take a step back and focus more on taking care of the people in the team, suddenly needing to worry about the team taking leave or working through HR paperwork. I also took on the task of building a whole new team in a different area of the company, in a different country, so as well as looking after the team I was just part of the previous day, I now had to initiate the hiring process and source a team of four for this other project.

How my colleagues responded

I noticed a change in how some of the team treated me once I got the "manager" title. Some would now stand up if I walked over to their desks, or refuse to sit at the same table as me at lunchtime. Others started resenting me because maybe I’d got a role they felt they deserved. So I had to take a lot of time assessing what boundaries I now needed to be aware of and work within, while also trying to work out what my new role involved as far as influencing the testing process for two teams.

The role of test leaders

I think there is constantly a question over the heads of anyone in a test leadership role, which is, "Is this role needed as we move to a more agile/DevOps-focused world?" But in my experience, regardless of the methodology, there is always a need for that mindset of someone who can advocate for quality and coach the teams across all disciplines on the importance of good quality.

One impact on the role of test leaders is that there is an implicit expectation that they are the single focal point for all things quality within their domain. This puts extra pressure on them to be able to answer every question from the wider business, such as, "Why was this missed?" or be able to answer on the spot how something should be tested. A good test leader cannot and should not know every intricate detail of how to test everything, but should be able to lean on a very well-trusted team to help ensure the detail is available to those who need it.

Igniting passion

Test leaders can ignite passion in testers by finding ways to engage them. Start a community of practice, share blogs, videos, podcasts or get external speakers to come and share their wisdom with the team. You may find from trying some of these, that some of the testers may start wanting to try new ways of testing, or start learning new skills.

The next step would be to nurture that passion, point them in the right direction for their career and let them run with it. An example of this would be a recent one: a member of my team was losing all motivation. He had started learning automation because he felt he had to in order to remain relevant. After a few one-on-ones where we dove into what made him tick, we started working on getting his "mojo" back. This led us to him learning about exploratory testing and driving the process. He has his fire fuelled again and wants to talk about what he is learning all the time.

Personal testing values and personal leadership values

My personal values were created about 2-3 years ago to help me self-reflect and course correct.

These are the testing values:

  • Testing is a mindset – I’ve understood this better as I started having to hire testers, but not everyone is cut out for testing. It may be true that anyone can test, but it takes someone with the right mindset to test deep and test well.
  • Testing Isn’t just identifying and executing scenarios – Testing starts with questions, with probing and digging for information. Ultimately, the results of testing are about providing information to the decision-makers. We should not be responsible only for a list of pass/fail results; we have so much more to offer.
  • Testing starts as a project starts – We should be involved in conversations at the start of a project; we shouldn’t be left to piece together requirements at a later stage. We should be involved (where possible) in assisting to form the requirements and putting them through their paces before any code is written.
  • 100% of testing being automated should never be a consideration – If I see one more LinkedIn thread on this topic, I will explode. Maybe I need to be more open-minded somehow, but I can only see automation as a tool to aid a tester, not to replace them. It should be a single tool in a tester’s toolkit, not someone’s entire toolbox. Good automation also does not just run a series of test cases which would otherwise have been run manually; it can (and should) do so much more.
  • Test team and/or testing is valued as highly as other disciplines within a team/organisation - For a long time, I had worked in teams where testing was seen as the second class citizen in the room. Time for testing was shrunk because the true value testing provided was never given a chance to be shown. It’s a case of making awareness of testing a part of our role. All project team members should know what they are getting from testers and there should be the same respect and time given to testing as there is to writing the product code or operationalising it.

My leadership values are as below:

  • Protect – I know in a lot of scenarios, the manager is the face of a team; it’s therefore important that you serve the role of keeping the team out of the firing line where necessary, also ensuring they are ring-fenced from work/distractions which they don’t need to be involved in. That doesn’t mean you wouldn’t go to the team to get insight on an issue, but you do the heavy lifting and ensure they can stay focused on what they should be doing.
  • Nurture – Sometimes, your team members need to know you have their back! Sometimes they need a metaphorical arm around them to let them know it’s okay! Not everyone can be on their game all of the time; a manager who recognises this and supports their team when they need it can be hugely beneficial. This also leads to encouraging them to try to improve themselves and helping to coach them down the path to the next level. Celebrating successes, however small, can really encourage them to keep going.
  • Empower – Sometimes, the decision needs to be made by the manager, but it is still important to take into account the opinions of the team; you may ultimately disregard them, but giving them the opportunity to have a voice can go a long way in building their confidence. Enabling them to make decisions and you going with them will help grow their leadership skills too. There is nothing better than having a capable team of leaders which you have helped grow.
  • Evangelise – As well as protecting the team from the hierarchy, it’s equally important to take their work and promote it. In my eyes, the manager should be the team’s biggest supporter and sing their praises whenever they can. A lot of teams I have been part of have felt like no one knows what they do. That can be changed by ensuring you are their biggest advocate and try to ensure that the value the team provides is known.

How these values drive the things I do

The values allow me to set out my stall when starting a role, and enable my team to understand my values. Especially with the leadership values, I find it gives my team comfort to know how I will support them. It enables me to identify when I may be working in a situation which may have a conflict and I can start to work to alleviate that conflict.

I keep the leadership values above my desk and try to focus on them in every one-on-one discussion I have with members of my team. Am I giving them the opportunity to use their voice, can I shout about the work they are doing? What can I do to help them?

On the testing value side, I live every day trying to ensure testing is treated as highly as other disciplines in the workplace. "How can I raise the awareness of good testing practices?" is a question I ask myself often and this pushed me to help evolve the whole testing culture in my last two roles, ensuring testing is considered as early as possible in both Waterfall and Agile projects.

What I've learned

I’ve learned that if you come across a conflict with your beliefs, you have two choices: work to try and change the environment, or find a way to move on to a situation where you are more aligned with your values.

Making my first career move came about because I had spent time doing a self-retrospective, and came up with the values as a way to understand why the changes in the organisation I was in at the time were grating me so much. I realised I couldn’t meet my values if I stayed any longer, so I made the decision to leave, which was hard after 12 years.

I’ve also learned that these are not static values; I need to evolve them over time and I am sure the next time I do a self-retrospective, I will want to tweak them slightly. You have to ensure you are aligned and believe in them. If you don’t, they really won’t help you change anything.

Test leaders or managers in the world of agile and DevOps

The role of a test leader needs to change; gone are the days of a test manager being the sole point of contact from a quality perspective and being responsible for handing out testing tasks to a team. With the world of agile/DevOps becoming a lot more prominent, the role needs to evolve to being more a test coach, advocating for good testing practices, helping to evolve the culture, raising awareness of what the testers can do and what good quality is. They need to be a servant leader and support their team to fulfil their potential.

Conclusion

Being a test leader in the current world is a challenge, but you really can reap what you sow. I get so much satisfaction from helping my team find their wings, coaching them and seeing the results and watching the quality of their work improve exponentially because they are happy, passionate and engaged with what they do.

About the Author

Simon Prior, senior test manager at Easyjet and podcast co-host of Testing Peers,  spoke about the skills needed to stay relevant as a modern test leader at ConTEST 2021. Prior is heading up the Digital QA team at EasyJet. In his career he has worked in various roles across IT from C++ developer, Scrum Master, and build engineer before finally finding his passion in testing. He loves coaching/mentoring his team to be the best they can, enabling them to use all possible tools and skills to get their job done to the best of their ability. He is a well-known speaker and meetup organiser in the software testing world, a podcast co-host (check out TestingPeers.com) and also a keen advocate for companies to consider neurodiversity as part of their inclusion programmes.

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